movie star drool · stuff I read

The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy

40640521A definitive history of Hollywood’s most iconic, storied, and scandalous hotel.

For nearly ninety years, Hollywood’s brightest stars have favored the Chateau Marmont as a home away from home. An apartment house-turned-hotel, it has hosted generations of gossip and folklore: 1930s bombshell Jean Harlow took lovers during her third honeymoon there; director Nicholas Ray slept with his sixteen-year-old Rebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood; Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter met poolside and began a secret affair; Jim Morrison swung from the balconies, once falling nearly to his death; John Belushi suffered a fatal overdose in a private bungalow; Lindsay Lohan got the boot after racking up nearly $50,000 in charges in less than two months.

Perched above the Sunset Strip like a fairytale castle, the Chateau seems to come from another world entirely. Its singular appearance houses an equally singular history. While a city, an industry, and a culture have changed around it, Chateau Marmont has welcomed the most iconic and iconoclastic personalities in film, music, and media. It appeals to the rich and famous not just for its European ambiance but for its seclusion: Much of what’s happened inside the Chateau’s walls has eluded the public eye.

Until now. With wit and prowess, Shawn Levy recounts the wild revelries and scandalous liaisons; the creative breakthroughs and marital breakdowns; the births and deaths that the Chateau has been a party to. Vivid, salacious, and richly informed, his book is a glittering tribute to Hollywood as seen from inside the walls of its most hallowed hotel.

The Castle on Sunset is a dishy yet understated history of the famous (infamous?) Chateau Marmont, a landmark hotel overlooking the Sunset Strip. Levy takes the history from bare ground covered in scrub and onions through the building’s beginning as an apartment building, an out-of-the-way hideaway for Hollywood elite needing out of the spotlight, the run-down cheap-chic of the 1970s and 80s, and its reinvention as the playground of the glitzy entertainment industry A-list. There are lots of endnotes and citations but I would have loved more pictures. I’ll have to check a finished copy.

Due out tomorrow!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · movie star drool · stuff I read

Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery

40538583._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
From a veteran culture writer and modern movie expert, a celebration and analysis of the movies of 1999—arguably the most groundbreaking year in American cinematic history.

In 1999, Hollywood as we know it exploded: Fight Club. The Matrix. Office Space. Election. The Blair Witch Project. The Sixth Sense. Being John Malkovich. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. American Beauty. The Virgin Suicides. Boys Don’t Cry. The Best Man. Three Kings. Magnolia. Those are just some of the landmark titles released in a dizzying movie year, one in which a group of daring filmmakers and performers pushed cinema to new limits—and took audiences along for the ride. Freed from the restraints of budget, technology (or even taste), they produced a slew of classics that took on every topic imaginable, from sex to violence to the end of the world. The result was a highly unruly, deeply influential set of films that would not only change filmmaking, but also give us our first glimpse of the coming twenty-first century. It was a watershed moment that also produced The Sopranos; Apple’s Airport; Wi-Fi; and Netflix’s unlimited DVD rentals.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is the story of not just how these movies were made, but how they re-made our own vision of the world. It features more than 130 new and exclusive interviews with such directors and actors as Reese Witherspoon, Edward Norton, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, Nia Long, Matthew Broderick, Taye Diggs, M. Night Shyamalan, David O. Russell, James Van Der Beek, Kirsten Dunst, the Blair Witch kids, the Office Space dudes, the guy who played Jar-Jar Binks, and dozens more. It’s the definitive account of a culture-conquering movie year none of us saw coming…and that we may never see again.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is a readable and very well researched look at some of the most memorable films from 1999 – including The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty (and Pie), Election, Office Space, The Phantom Menace, to name only a few – and how the culture and media of the late 90s and the end of the 20th century spoke to these films and filmmakers. Raftery interviewed a lot of people whose careers were made in the late 1990s so there’s more of an intimacy than if it were just a book of researched facts. He also contrasted 1999 with 1969 (the “Raging Bulls, Easy Rider” film year) and 2019. A fun read for film fans. 1999 was my junior-senior year in college and I think I saw most of the movies profiled in this book either during 1999 or in the next year or two.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London by Claire Harman

40909430Summary from Goodreads:
From the acclaimed biographer–the fascinating, little-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, leading Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Queen Victoria herself to wonder: Can a novel kill?

In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London’s highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell’s valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales–Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William’s murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

I enjoyed Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë so I was tickled to see Murder by the Book come up in the catalogs. It is a delightful mashup of true crime and my favorite genre, books about books. Harman gets at the class worries of upper class early-Victorian London with the grisly murder of a harmless old man (in the ways of British aristocracy, Lord William Russell was pretty innocuous) by his valet (GASP). In among the description of the crime and investigation is a discussion of the unbelievably popular Newgate novels romanticizing criminals’ exploits, particularly that of Jack Sheppard, which has many echoes today in the fraught discussion of the effect of violent and/or radicalized media on consumers. Harman perhaps should have left off the “I shall try to suss out what really happened” epilogue since it’s pretty thin and doesn’t add much to the book.

Murder by the Book is out today in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek

40594415Summary from Goodreads:
Our bones have many stories to tell, if you know how to listen.

Bone is a marvel, an adaptable and resilient building material developed over more than four hundred million years of evolutionary history. It gives your body its shape and the ability to move. It grows and changes with you, an undeniable document of who you are and how you lived. Arguably, no other part of the human anatomy has such rich scientific and cultural significance, both brimming with life and a potent symbol of death.

In this delightful natural and cultural history of bone, Brian Switek explains where our skeletons came from, what they do inside us, and what others can learn about us when these artifacts of mineral and protein are all we’ve left behind.

Bone is as embedded in our culture as it is in our bodies. Our species has made instruments and jewelry from bone, treated the dead like collectors’ items, put our faith in skull bumps as guides to human behavior, and arranged skeletons into macabre tributes to the afterlife. Switek makes a compelling case for getting better acquainted with our skeletons, in all their surprising roles. Bridging the worlds of paleontology, anthropology, medicine, and forensics, Skeleton Keys illuminates the complex life of bones inside our bodies and out.

Skeleton Keys is a fun overview of the history of the human skeleton and what it can tell us about our past. Switek’s background is in non-human paleontology so he comes at the subject with an interesting mix of experience and self-education. He covers some famous cases of identification (such as when the skeleton of Richard III was positively identified) as well as the ethics of treating the skeletons of people who once lived as curios and objects to keep in museums. I think Switek did an excellent job presenting all the information here with due respect for indigenous cultures and striped back the history of racist and misogynist ideology which has permeated study of human skeletons.

Skeleton Keys is out Tuesday, March 5, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD

39893608Summary from Goodreads:
At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. In this intimate, profoundly moving work, he illuminates the extraordinary field of transplantation that enables this kind of miracle to happen every day.

When Death Becomes Life is a thrilling look at how science advances on a grand scale to improve human lives. Mezrich examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

Mezrich takes us inside the operating room and unlocks the wondrous process of transplant surgery, a delicate, intense ballet requiring precise timing, breathtaking skill, and at times, creative improvisation. In illuminating this work, Mezrich touches the essence of existence and what it means to be alive. Most physicians fight death, but in transplantation, doctors take from death. Mezrich shares his gratitude and awe for the privilege of being part of this transformative exchange as the dead give their last breath of life to the living. After all, the donors are his patients, too.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? The human story behind the most exceptional medicine of our time, Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

When When Death Becomes Life came across my pitch emails a few months ago, I marked it down as a to-read immediately. A history of medicine, specifically transplant medicine? Sign me up.

Mezrich presents a history of solid organ transplantation alongside his own memoir of learning to become a transplant surgeon (mostly kidneys and livers). Each road was long and hard and Mezrich is very honest about his own path as a surgeon. If you know anything about this branch of medicine, it comes with significant risk of failure and he also gets into the ethics of listing patients with significant co-morbidies or addition. Mezrich includes two chapters where he presents the stories of some of his recipients and of the donors and their families. If you are not moved by those stories you have no soul.

This is also a reminder to consider marking “Organ Donor” on your driver’s license and having that conversation with your family. We are unlikely ever to have a “voluntary opt-out” policy in this country, so patients in need of a transplant are reliant on people, mostly their loved ones, consenting to donation when the situation arises.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Reading Women · stuff I read

Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

33894921Summary from Goodreads:
From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning.

I picked up a galley of Victoria the Queen at BEA in 2016 and it, unfortunately, has been in a pile of to-read books ever since. But I recently found it on the library’s Libby site, so I decided to give it a read. Baird has done a remarkable job reconstructing the inner life of a woman whose family and official biographers tried to mold into the myth she had become. Victoria was remarkably contradictory in her views, believing that she had the right to tell her ministers what to do and shape foreign policy yet felt inferior to her husband and didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, etc. (which I was surprised to learn).

(The audiobook narrator was dreadfully slow – I had the speed kicked up to 2.25x by the end – and had terrible German pronunciation.)

Dear FTC: I had a galley of this book from BEA but wound up borrowing the audiobook from the library.

audiobooks · Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

43228964Summary from Goodreads:
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times -bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

The Poison Squad is a very good overview of the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the political struggles of the era which are, annoyingly, still the same struggles today. “Regulation stifles business and prevents us from making as much greedy money as possible” versus “please stop trying to poison the populace with unknown food additives, pesticides, chemical dyes, etc.” (you can guess what side I come down on). It’s a bit dry in places but since I tend to listen to audiobooks on 1.5-1.75x speed I didn’t notice as much.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library via Libby.

mini-review · stuff I read

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth

38647394Summary from Goodreads:
In this riveting popular history, the creator of You Must Remember This probes the inner workings of Hollywood’s glamorous golden age through the stories of some of the dozens of actresses pursued by Howard Hughes, to reveal how the millionaire mogul’s obsessions with sex, power and publicity trapped, abused, or benefitted women who dreamt of screen stardom.

In recent months, the media has reported on scores of entertainment figures who used their power and money in Hollywood to sexually harass and coerce some of the most talented women in cinema and television. But as Karina Longworth reminds us, long before the Harvey Weinsteins there was Howard Hughes—the Texas millionaire, pilot, and filmmaker whose reputation as a cinematic provocateur was matched only by that as a prolific womanizer.

His supposed conquests between his first divorce in the late 1920s and his marriage to actress Jean Peters in 1957 included many of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, among them Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner. From promoting bombshells like Jean Harlow and Jane Russell to his contentious battles with the censors, Hughes—perhaps more than any other filmmaker of his era—commoditized male desire as he objectified and sexualized women. Yet there were also numerous women pulled into Hughes’s grasp who never made it to the screen, sometimes virtually imprisoned by an increasingly paranoid and disturbed Hughes, who retained multitudes of private investigators, security personnel, and informers to make certain these actresses would not escape his clutches.

Vivid, perceptive, timely, and ridiculously entertaining, Seduction is a landmark work that examines women, sex, and male power in Hollywood during its golden age—a legacy that endures nearly a century later.

I’ve been a fan of Karina Longworth’s work on her podcast You Must Remember This for a while so I was really excited to see that she had a book coming out about Howard Hughes. Not because of Howard Hughes, because ew, gross, but because she was going to shine a light on the women he treated like garbage. Seduction is the story of how Hughes had this weirdly charming personality, convinced a lot of people that he knew what he was doing in the movie business, and ultimately became a person suffering from untreated mental illness.

One of the major themes in Seduction is how Hughes controlled women’s careers in the movie industry, to the extent that some of them didn’t even work during the time they lived in Hollywood. Women like Jane Russell, Faith Domergue, and Billie Dove who were poised for Betty Davis-levels of stardom, and who were good actresses, were reduced to their noticeable physical assets and made far fewer movies than contemporaries at other studios. Myraid other young women, some of them young enough to require their mothers to come with them, were lured to Hollywood with the promise of stardom and then kept under constant surveillance and prevented from working.

While I was not shocked that he was a completely gross, creepy, controlling predator, particularly toward very young women of a certain physical type, I was surprised that he was a really bad businessman and filmmaker (I should have known about the filmmaker stuff, I have seen The Conqueror, do not recommend). He tinkered with movies so long that they went over budget, or no longer made sense. RKO died under his leadership. The only reason he had money to blow in Hollywood was because he inherited an extremely prosperous manufacturing company from this father and then picked up lucrative defense contracts during World War II.

Hughes was not the only gross dude running around Hollywood between the 1920s and 1960s. There were a lot, trust me. For all the glitz and glamour, “classic” Hollywood had a lot of garbage hiding under rocks and Karina shines a very strong light on one particular corner. Now, if you have listened to some of the podcast episodes that were produced as part of the publicity for Seduction don’t worry that the same information is re-hashed in both places – the episodes and the book complement each other, so I highly recommend both.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.